Stress and Your Brain
At the first signs of stress, the adrenaline kicks in, setting off a burst of activity in your nervous system. This is turn, speeds up your heart and changes the size of the blood vessels. Besides getting you ready for fight or flight, it also helps you to remember those frightening events of your life. Therefore, this adrenaline surge also helps to plant emotional memories of the event in your life.
After the surge of adrenaline, comes the second stage of the stress response. The adrenal cortex begins to pump out cortisol, hydrocortisone and corticosterone. These are called glucocorticoids or GCs. These GCs are helpful in dealing with emergencies. Besides boosting glucose production and constricting blood vessels, they also go straight up to the brain to help regulate stress signaling. It tells your brain whether to calm down or boost the stress level, depending on what’s best for you at the moment. These GCs can exert pressure on the temporal lobe to help you remember those emotional events.
Some stress is emergency induced and some is chronic. Chronic stress can be very dangerous to your brain, since it constantly sends GCs from the adrenal glands straight to the brain. That’s why stressed out brains are at risk for damage.
The glucocorticoids go straight to the brain, to the memory system, most especially the hippocampus. It tells your memories that the event has survival value to you and you need to remember it. Unfortunately, the GCs are not always beneficial. These hormones are very powerful and sometimes stress can raise the levels of these hormones beyond what the brain’s neurons can handle. This can result in damage to the parts of the brain that relate to memory. Long periods of severe, prolonged stress can actually lead to the death of neurons. If you feel you’re at the mercy of your circumstances, it can actually intensify the danger to your brain.
Different people react differently to stress. Some who go through traumatic events will go on to suffer some lasting effects, actually becoming psychologically overwhelmed. Others work through the event and come out virtually unscathed and with memories intact.
Knowing whether your stress is acute or chronic is key to figuring out why some brains are more susceptible to stress related damage. Each person possesses his/her own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to handling stress and knowing what to do about it. Those who are more vulnerable to anger, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are more likely to suffer brain damage.
Keep in mind that everyone has moments of depression or “the blues” as some people call them. These normally do not last long and you shouldn’t worry about them. You will encounter these moments of sadness and grief or indulge in little “pity parties” many times in the course of your life.
Major depression is something different altogether and requires serious professional assistance. This is considered one of the biggest stresses for anyone and is immensely painful and ultimately dangerous for your brain. It is possible to recover from major depression, but what does it do to the brain? Doctors report that fifty percent of the people who undergo major depression possess high cortisol levels. A high cortisol level over a long period of time can bring about some degree of brain damage.
They’ve shown that the first neurons damaged in this way are in the memory center. The Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, in a study, discovered that people who had once been depressed, even several years before, showed twelve to fifteen percent atrophy of their hippocampi. That means the loss of millions of memory cells. Most people who have been depressed are more likely to have recurrent episodes of depression.
What else can cause our stress levels to rise to unhealthy levels? Anger, anxiety and low self-esteem can contribute to the problem. Here, we’re not talking about slight anxiety or the occasional feelings of anger towards a situation or an individual. Where the brain and its susceptibility to damage are concerned, we’re talking about severe anxiety of long duration. Someone who feels anger constantly and for years without respite, is not only a candidate for brain damage, but for a heart attack or stroke as well.
As for low self-esteem, studies have proven that success and feeling good about oneself is definitely beneficial to your health. The opposite is also true, of course. Someone who has a chronically depressed personality is doing damage to his or her brains.
In this day and age, we are not running from wild beasts and our lives are not necessarily in constant danger, but we experience our own type of stress nevertheless. With deadlines and pressures at work, rush hour traffic, family problems, the ever present need to handle money and bills, it’s no wonder we experience chronic stress. We are constantly feeling the adrenaline rush of our predecessors, but without the relief of fight or flight that they had. Dr. Jeff Victoroff, in his book, “Saving Your Brain,” says that the cultural evolution has outpaced the evolution of the brain. We are developing frayed nerves, quite literally. Only by relaxing and slowing down can we help to save our brains.
So, what’s the best way to reduce that stress, lower the hormone levels, relax and save your brain? Aerobic exercise! That’s right-it’s so simple! We have all that nervous energy stored up, and practically leaking out our ears and what do we do? We go and sit on the couch and watch television, but that’s not enough to relieve the stress of our days. We need to throw ourselves literally into some form of physical activity, in order to relieve the pressure. Strenuous physical activity will reduce the stress, the anger, and the anxiety. The endorphins produced by this physical activity make our bodies and minds feel good; and then we feel better about ourselves, boosting our self-esteem. Emotionally happy and healthy people have brains that are happy and healthy too.
How wonderful would it be if that were all we had to do to relieve stress and thereby save our brain cells? In some cases, that works beautifully well. In others, not so much. No matter how much they exercise, stress still gets to them, threatening their physical and emotional health with high blood pressure, which can lead to strokes, which in turn destroys brain cells